Burn (Crash & Burn Duet #2) - Grahame Claire

Chapter One

Teague

“Pepper is missing.”

The old woman’s panicked voice barreled down the phone line.

“Missing?” I sounded groggy, like she’d spoken a foreign language. I’d been fired hours earlier, and apparently my brain was already sluggish at responding to emergencies.

“Did I stutter?” Miss Adeline snapped. “She was gone . . . awhile. So I went downstairs to check on her.”

I waited impatiently for her to finish the thought. Instead, all I got was silence and a whole lot of tension even though we weren’t in the same location.

“How do you know she’s not walking other dogs?” I had no idea what time it was. I’d been sitting in this same spot for hours.

“Because Sadie, Muffy, and Ash came back. Without her.”

The glass of water I held slipped from my hands. It shattered on Lincoln’s kitchen’s stone floor.

Her words were a swift kick in the stomach . . . and in my mind, which shifted into high gear. I pushed out of the chair, grabbed my keys, and jogged to the elevator.

“I’m on my way.”

My hand shook as I pressed the call button.

Where are you, Pepper? Please be okay.

I checked the time as I stepped into the elevator. Almost midnight.

I despised that she had to be out so late. It wasn’t safe. And even though I’d asked her—more like demanded—to not walk the dogs at an ungodly hour, she’d put me in my place.

I should’ve been there.

Instead, after I’d been fired, I’d wandered around the city. Furious.

I’d ignored my phone all day, needing to be alone while I sorted out what my next move would be.

The one person I’d wanted to go to, I hadn’t. Because I didn’t want to dump more problems on her. She already had enough.

But if I had, maybe she wouldn’t be missing right now.

Please be okay. Please be okay.

The thought replayed over and over in my head as I jumped in my truck. Rushed through red lights. Swerved around the few cars in my way.

When I was a few blocks out from Grey Paws, my body tightened on high alert. I swung my eyes from side to side, searching every dark corner and alleyway.

Hoonnnkk.

Headlights blinded me and I jerked the wheel to get the truck back into my lane.

Shit.

Come on, Pepper. Desperation to find her pricked every part of me.

Anger bubbled up as I passed the black hole that used to be her park. I crept forward, shining my lights on the destruction.

It was impossible to see anything but charred heaps of what used to be. The barrels were gone, most likely in evidence at the police station.

I banged the steering wheel with my fist. “Damn it.”

She’s fine. She’s just . . . I didn’t know where she was. And my hollow reassurances to myself did nothing to calm my racing heart.

A figure lay on the ground near what was left of the bench we’d sat on only a few days ago. I slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the truck.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

The bell sounded from the cab, where I’d left the door open and the truck running. I ignored it and sprinted ahead.

“Pepper.” I rolled over the heap and winced.

A dirty bearded face greeted me. Eyes that looked lost blinked open.

I let out a long sigh and patted the man’s arm. “I’ll get you some help, buddy.”

“Why’d you wake me up?” he slurred grumpily.

“I was looking for someone.” I perked up. It was a long shot but worth asking. “Have you seen a woman?” Crap. I had no idea what she was wearing.

A loud snore came from the ground. He’d passed out again.

I texted a friend who worked at a homeless shelter to get some help for the man and ran back to my truck.

I scoured the surrounding blocks of the shelter a few times but came up empty.

I wheeled to a stop in the alley behind Grey Paws. Please let her be back.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

My fist hurt from pounding on the door so hard.

Woof. Woof. Woof.

A frenzy of barking started from inside.

Impatiently, I waited for Miss Adeline to answer. I glanced up and down the alley, hoping to see Pepper in her overalls with a messy ponytail and that beautiful face.

I was still surprised at how quickly she’d grown to mean something to me.

The door creaked open. The barking grew louder.

Miss Adeline’s sharp eye peered at me through the crack.

“Is she back?” I asked in lieu of a greeting.

She held the dogs while I shimmied inside. Ash rocketed toward me. I knelt. She burrowed between